Business Class the Way It Should Be: EVA Air (777-300ER) Biz From Seattle to Taipei
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EVA Air, the second-biggest airline in Taiwan after China Airlines, routinely gets mentioned as one of the best long-haul carriers around. Nearly half of its relatively small fleet is made up of long-range Boeing 777-300ERs, configured with fewer seats than most other operators of the same plane — the 29-year old airline has made a name for itself as a long-haul specialist. In North America, it operates a slew of nonstop routes to Taipei (TPE) from Chicago (ORD), Houston (IAH), Los Angeles (LAX), New York (JFK), San Francisco (SFO), Seattle (SEA), Toronto (YYZ) and Vancouver (YVR) — including a 7,800-mile whopper that's one of the longest nonstops from JFK.
With no first class, business is the top offering from EVA, which calls it Royal Laurel class. The winner of many accolades from frequent flyers to Asia, it had been on our wish list for some time.
When the TPG crew spotted a Business Saver award for the Seattle-to-Taipei route through United MileagePlus for just 80,000 miles, we jumped on it. Thanks to its partnership in Star Alliance, United miles could be used to book EVA Air flights — and with just $5.60 in taxes and fees plus $75 for close-in booking fees (since we purchased the ticket five days before the flight), we were all set. We transferred the required miles instantly to United MileagePlus from Chase Ultimate Rewards at a 1:1 ratio. It's easy to amass Chase UR points, too, since cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Chase Sapphire Preferred Card are each offering a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months of account opening.
An alternative to booking this award through United is to go through Aeroplan, where a ticket will run you 75,000 miles plus CA$7.30 (~US$5.64) in taxes and fees. Aeroplan miles transfer instantly from American Express Membership Rewards, so you could earn enough points for a one-way business-class award from signing up for The Business Platinum Card® from American Express, which is currently offering a welcome bonus of up to 75,000 bonus points: 50,000 bonus points after you spend $10,000 and an extra 25,000 bonus points after you spend an additional $10,000 all on qualifying purchases within your first 3 months of Card Membership. If you don't want to deal with such a high spending requirement, the personal Platinum Card® from American Express is offering a welcome bonus of 60,000 points after you spend $5,000 within the first three months of account opening.
The EVA Air check-in area was small, but the airline doesn't have many flights out of SEA — just one, in fact. Checking in through the priority lane — reserved for Royal Laurel, EVA Air's Diamond-level top elites and passengers with Gold status in Star Alliance — took a breezy three minutes with no queue, and I was promptly on my way to security.
EVA Air doesn't participate in TSA PreCheck, but the premium-passenger lane was fast. I still had to take off my shoes and remove the laptop and camera from my backpack, but I found the Seattle TSA staff far friendlier than the notoriously gruff agents at my home airports, LaGuardia (LGA) and JFK.
EVA Air departed from the remote S concourse, which required a ride on the airport train. The lounge was in the concourse.
The Club at SEA Lounge serves the Star Alliance carriers that fly to Seattle and depart from the S concourse (EVA, Lufthansa, ANA, Asiana) as well as Condor, Emirates, Icelandair and Xiamen. It's also a Priority Pass-accessible lounge. That's a lot of airlines bringing big widebody jets with large premium-class sections, and, not surprisingly, the place was fairly crowded when I walked in to a warm welcome by the desk staff and a good selection of newspapers and magazines.
Food was limited to snacks, bagels and muffins, and a good tomato-basil soup that did me fine, but what I was really looking forward to was the EVA biz-class menu, about which I had heard great things.
Power outlets in front of the big, clean windows overlooking the tarmac action were plentiful. Unfortunately, the weather was classic Seattle gray.
Overall, the Club at SEA did the basic job of a lounge well. The free airport Wi-Fi (I didn't try the lounge's own) was fast enough, I found a seat easily, the food was perfectly acceptable, and I got to watch airplanes while catching up on work. But it did not feel quite up to par when compared to the outstanding business-class experience I would have on board. I could also have had access to British Airways' BA Terraces lounge, also located in the S concourse — it extends access to EVA Air biz passengers, even though BA is in the Oneworld airline alliance, which competes with Star Alliance.
An orderly, streamlined boarding is pretty rare, but that's exactly what happened here. People actually observed the sign telling passengers to stay seated until their row was called.
I didn't get to see my 777, hidden from view at the end of a long jetway, but the tracking site FlightAware told me that it was the one with Chinese registration B-16711, a 2008-vintage bird.
Cabin and Seat
Business class on this aircraft features 38 lie-flat seats in a 1-2-1 reverse-herringbone layout offering aisle access to all seats, divided into two cabins.
Premium economy, which EVA called Elite, features 64 recliner seats arranged 2-4-2. Coach has 211 seats in the tight 3-4-3 layout common nowadays on 777s, but with 33 inches of legroom — more than on most Triple Sevens.
I selected 10K, a right-side seat in the cozy aft business cabin, featuring only four rows. With six seats occupied out of 16 in the cabin, it felt quite private. Throughout the flight, there was no discernible noise from the premium-economy cabin close behind me.
I found a pillow and comforter at the seat, which featured an airbag-style safety belt. Storage wasn't my favorite thing about this seat, which didn't have a cubby large enough for a laptop, but on the other hand it offered good privacy and would prove to be a very comfortable place to spend the next half a day, even for a 6-foot, 2-inch-tall person.
The display below is shown in its deployed position.
As soon as I reached my seat, a flight attendant came to greet me warmly: "Welcome on board, Mr. Riva. May I take your jacket?" Her impeccable tone and approach were matched consistently throughout the 13 hours I spent on the plane. She then brought me my choice of orange juice or water (Champagne would be served later) and a Godiva dark chocolate, with a fragrant hot towel.
Shortly after came the amenity kit and pajama set with slippers, followed by separate menus for food and drinks. I'm not ashamed to say that I recycled the pajamas for lounging at home.
The hardshell Rimowa toiletry bag, the perfect size for a weekend away, was a great idea for a gift or to keep for yourself, which is what I did. Inside were the usual items: hand and face creams, lip balm, dental kit, eye mask, socks, comb, earplugs and cleansing towelette.
I found headphones on the seat next to the pillow. The three-prong outlet meant I could not use my own Bose set, which featured a standard audio jack.
The cubby on the right side of the seat was a good place to store shoes and camera.
Right behind my head were a storage area for bottles, phone and other small items; the remote control for the inflight entertainment system; universal power plug; headphone plug, A/V input; USB outlet; and a reading light.
The seat controls were easy to use.
Literature sat at the foot of the seat by the aisle. In the image below, the adjustable (!) left armrest is down.
In this image, it's up.
The comforter was in the footwell. Warm, fluffy and plenty long for my frame, it immediately became my favorite airline comforter along with the Westin Heavenly in Delta's Delta One business class.
Food and Beverage
Four days before the flight, I used EVA Air's "book the cook" option, which let business-class passengers select their meals from three weeks to 24 hours in advance. The selection for the main course was large; I chose the lobster, mostly out of curiosity about how it would be presented on a plane.
For the snack service, I chose the pork belly with noodles.
After I had settled into my seat, the flight attendant who served me throughout the flight came to confirm my prebooked orders, ask if I would like Champagne after takeoff and inquire whether I preferred coffee or tea with breakfast and how I would take it. She also asked whether the crew should wake me for meals if I were sleeping.
The gorgeous menus merit a mention of honor. Designed by Taiwanese artist Qing-Yang Xiao of Shout Visual Studio — winner of several awards for CD- and album-cover designs and nominated for several Grammys — they were a pleasure to behold, and spoke to EVA's attention to detail.
The wine list included a Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 2006 Champagne, two reds (a Bordeaux and an Argentinian malbec) and two whites (a French sauvignon blanc and a German riesling), overall a pretty standard selection for long-haul business class with a top international airline — except for the champagne, which might well have been the nicest in business class on any airline. On the ground, it retails at $150 a bottle, about triple the average of the non-vintage Champagnes usually served in biz.
We pushed back from the gate early, and a half hour after takeoff Champagne was served along with a small appetizer of mozzarella with onion marmalade and seared ahi tuna with ginger cream sauce. The Veuve Clicquot, "highly recommended" by Wine Advocate, did an excellent job of getting me in the mood for lunch.
Another appetizer, grilled shrimp with prosciutto and mango salsa, came next, while I opted to keep drinking Champagne for the rest of the meal. The airline's care for apparently small details was evident in the dragonfly motif repeated on the tablecloth and in the napkin holder.
The soup of butternut squash that came next was a delicate beauty, and so was the crisp, snappy salad that followed, with a raspberry vinaigrette I chose from a selection of several dressings, once again explained to me by a solicitous flight attendant. A first-time EVA Air flyer, I was beginning to see why several friends had told me this was the best business-class experience to Asia from the US.
The lobster tail I had been so curious about turned out to be an intriguing take on a classic, with bok choy and ginger rice. Fair warning, though: Even when presented like this, with no need for the usual lobster-eating implements, it proved to be a bit unwieldy to eat on an airplane.
The only, and minor, service slip in 13 hours came between the lobster and the end of the meal, when I had to ask for sparkling water three times and got it only after a 20-minute wait. After a fruit and cheese plate, also excellent, I skipped ice cream and crême brûlée and ended with a jasmine tea, among the several teas on offer. After a delightful hourlong lunch, the flight attendant came to clear the table and ask me if she could make my bed, which I declined, opting to watch the IFE instead.
Shortly afterward, the cabin lights dimmed. Time to change into the pajamas in the very large, very clean bathroom between the two business-class cabins. It had a faint, pleasant smell of ginger, as well as fresh flowers, like the other biz-class bathrooms. The flight provided a consistent olfactory experience, from the hot towels to the bathroom products and the lip balm and moisturizers in the amenity kit — another instance of great attention to detail.
The left-side bathroom between the two cabins was also noticeably larger than the others.
The starry-sky motif on the ceiling definitely invited passengers to sleep, and flight attendants distributed bottles of Fiji water, also available at a minibar between the cabins, which also had wine.
Six and a half hours into the flight, after we had crossed the International Date Line and jumped ahead one day, the flight attendants brought out a good midflight snack, duck noodles. This was not an option in the meal reservation service; only the noodles were available. Passengers who didn't feel like a full bowl of noodles could select snacks from the galley, including dried starfruit and guava.
Tea and work on my laptop in the darkened, cozy cabin followed.
As we cruised along the Pacific coast of Russia, I put the seat in lie-flat position and got a few hours of good sleep.
Two and a half hours before landing, over Japan, a hot towel and coffee helped me wake up. The coffee rated as one of the best I'd ever had on a plane, but would not have been considered hot by American standards. Not an issue for me, but it might have been for passengers used to the scalding temperature of the average Starbucks brew.
The pork belly noodles with cold vegetables were, like the rest of the meals on this flight, decidedly above airplane average. The fruit plate that followed them was fresh, flavorful and elegantly presented.
The real AvGeek highlight of the IFE, and of the entire trip, was the flight data superimposed on the moving map. It was essentially the reproduction of the primary flight display in front of the pilots. For example, the screen below told me we were at 19,000 feet and climbing at 1,776 feet per minute on a 301-degree compass heading at an airspeed of 411 knots (473 mph), or 360 knots over the ground, off the coast of British Columbia.
The touchscreen wasn't as sharp as the latest generation, and pinch-to-zoom was not available, but it was large and easy to control, as was the remote. The movie selection was heavy on recent big Hollywood releases; the Western selection of video and audio entertainment was geared decidedly toward mainstream tastes and featured blurbs often written in a stilted, weirdly translated English. I was in no position to judge the Chinese-language offerings. The Thunder headphones provided by the airline weren't quite up to their name, but they did their job just fine.
Three hours of Wi-Fi set me back $16.95. I wasn't lucky with connection speeds that day; Wi-Fi was barely fast enough to send small images from my phone via WhatsApp, but very spotty and essentially unusable for anything heavier than email on my laptop.
After another hour of good lie-flat sleep, our captain announced it was time to begin the approach. His PA addresses were delivered in precise, to-the-point English, efficient but not cold — not unlike the service provided by his cabin crew. As I followed airspeed, altitude and heading on the monitor, our 777 broke through the clouds with nary a shudder and landed smoothly.
Running to get a tight connection, I got a glimpse of B-16711 as the ground crew began to unload cargo from the forward hold.
This remarkably consistent experience was business class the way it should be: attentive, unobtrusive, efficient service, complementing a solid hard product. I would absolutely fly EVA Air again and again — especially for an 80,000-mile award redemption price.
All images by the author.
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